A Baseball Savior, Knock on Wood

May 31, 1998

Every now and then, just when you're ready to burn your Topps,
trash your Rawlings and melt your Mr. Coffee, baseball finds a
peach-fuzzed kid to remind you why you loved the game in the
first place.

Seventy-two strikeouts in 46 1/3 innings. Four-and-oh in the
last month. A fastball that's been timed at 101 mph, which is
good to know, because nobody has actually seen it yet. Grown men
taking grenade cover on curveball strikes. Talk around the cage
about Koufax, Drysdale and Gibson.

In 20-year-old righthander Kerry Wood, we've finally found that
rarest of players--somebody the Florida Marlins can't
unload--and the game is loopy about it. Coaches who haven't
stood up for a pitch in 30 years are leaning against dugout
rails to warm their gnarled hands on the kid's heat. Atlanta was
sold out last Saturday for the Chicago Cubs' rookie. Cincinnati,
officially dead, had 33,480. At Arizona, many of the 47,129 fans
cheered him on as he fanned their own guys.

"This is why you hang around the game 25 extra years,"
59-year-old Cubs dugout coach Billy Williams says. "This is why
you keep putting on the uniform, to be part of something like
this, to see a kid who could end up among the alltime greats."

Is this fun or what?

"It's not just the strikeouts," says Chicago first basemen Mark
Grace. "It's the way guys are striking out. Swinging an hour
late on fastballs. Buckling like little kids on curveballs.
Swinging two feet above a slider. Crazy stuff."

Listen, how would you like to have been there when Wolfgang Puck
made his first sandwich? When Carl Sagan peered through his
first junior scientist telescope? When Bill Gates slipped in his
first pocket protector? You don't often get a chance to be there
when everything's new and preposterous and your legend still has
a flattop and some residual acne and paperboy blue eyes, and if
he weren't in a Cubs uniform, you would swear he's the kid who
helped your aunt with her groceries last week.

Thanks for saving baseball, kid. Can we see some I.D.?

Best of all, Wood seems to have arrived straight from 1953. He's
never any good, it's his catcher. ("He called such a perfect
game!" Wood will say.) It's not him, it's the fans. ("They got
me through the late innings!") Perhaps this week it will be the
maintenance man. (Every inning I'd come back and sit on a great
varnish job!)

Missing the superstar ego chromosome, Wood has said no to Leno,
answers every question about himself with a kick at the dirt--"I
just don't see what the big deal is about, well, me," he
says--and is befuddled that anybody wants him to scribble his
name down and send it to them. "In the mornings I come in and my
chair is full of mail," he says, amazed, "so I try to take care
of it. But by the time I get back from [batting practice], the
chair's full again." So what's a young phenom to do? "Well, I
try to answer as much as I can before the game starts."

Excuse us for a moment while we faint.

The kid is selling out in cities he's visiting for the first
time. Asked if he'd ever been to Atlanta before last weekend, he
replied, "Yeah, once, in the middle of the night, on a bus, in
Double A. They woke us up as we drove by the new stadium. Then
we went back to sleep."

Just to wake the rook up, Cubs veterans have stolen his clothes
and made him board the team charter wearing a 1970s disco
outfit. They have locked him in the bathroom for 45 minutes.
They have fined him for every imaginable offense: Sitting, not
sitting, sitting in one place too long. "We don't want to get
too rough on him," says catcher Scott Servais. "He's going to be
in this game a helluva lot longer than the rest of us, and we'll
need to get on his pass list."

This week Wood returns to Wrigley Field for the first time since
he hung his 20-strikeout Michelangelo on the Houston Astros on
May 6. The Cubs expect a sellout, the first of many, knock on
Wood. Two weeks later, on June 16, he'll turn 21. He's making
the major league minimum, $170,000, is worth 30 times that and
can't even figure out how to spend the $75 per diem he gets now.
"I can't think of a single thing I need for my birthday," he
says. "Usually, I ask for money, and my parents give me $20 in
an envelope. Maybe I'll just do that again."

Seriously, couldn't you just cry?

B/W PHOTO: ROBERT BECK [Rick Reilly]

"I just don't see what the big deal is about, well, me," Wood
says, with a kick at the dirt.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)